A few weeks ago I was pretty excited to see that Rockstar Games’s critically-acclaimed Canis Canem Edit (2006) (or Bully, as it’s know in the U.S.) had been remastered and rereleased on next generation consoles. I remembered playing this game a lot on Playstation 2 when it first came out ten years ago, so I had fond memories of what I recalled being a tongue-firmly-in-cheek game that took on the American school system, and was curious to see how well it held up.
Canis Canem Edit takes players on a journey through the American school system, playing as the serially-expelled troubled teen Jimmy Hopkins, starting out at last-chance boarding school Bullworth Academy. By taking on one clique at a time (the preps, the jocks, the greasers, the nerds etc.) as well as a fair few teachers, avoiding the prefects and getting into an assortment of high school hijinx, the player, via Jimmy, rises the ranks of Bullworth, and eventually defeats the Big Bad (fellow student/antagonist Gary), to bring harmony back to the school.
There has been a fair amount of hype around the remaster and digital rerelease of both Canis Canem Edit/Bully and Manhunt (2003), two of Rockstar’s “much-loved” Playstation 2 “classics” (along with some speculation about new games in the franchises on the way), and I assumed I was in for a jolly trip down memory lane. All in all, the game was as I remembered it: a clever but scathing commentary on American culture, more intelligent and with humour way beyond the comprehension of the teens who are its main characters. Jimmy Hopkins is the (typically Rockstar) quiet, aggressive male protagonist, often times doing terrible things, seemingly for the “greater good” (mostly his own personal gain). If you were to picture GTA: The School Years, you wouldn’t be far off.
In many ways, this is an interesting concept and game. The structure of the in-game ‘days’ to an extent mimics the school day: classes in the morning, classes in the afternoon, and you can get caught and punished by prefects or the police if caught truanting. Various infractions can also reap punishments (ranging from dressing out of school uniform, to enacting violence on adults or younger pupils)—despite these punishments lasting either a few seconds of cutscenes in the principals office, or the mild irritant of having to perform some kind of manual labour around campus. In the same way that other Rockstar titles set their own system of law and order, Canis Canem Edit allows players the (apparent) freedom to exploit at will both sides of their own moral code, and witness the virtual ‘consequences’.
So yes, all potentially interesting stuff. But there are things about this game that make me wonder: did they actually replay this at all before rereleasing it? As I’ve been making my way back through the game, I’ve winced a few times at a couple of the missions that are a bit off-colour (e.g. the grotesque lunch lady who asks you to find “drugs”, which she then slips the unsuspecting chemistry teacher while getting coffee with him; the coach that asks you to collect dirty underwear from the girls’ dorm, when you discover him leaving an adult store). But there’s one set of interrelated missions, squeezed into the game’s third chapter, that are a good example of how, when a game ages badly, it can really age badly.
Context: after taking down the preps and the greasers, the third chapter of the game sees Jimmy/the player on a mission to gain control of the jocks. To do so, he enlists the help of/bullies the nerds, and their leader Earnest.
In the opening cutscene for the mission ‘Paparazzi’, Earnest decides that to help Jimmy ‘take down the jocks’, he needs some ‘inappropriate pictures of someone they care about’– specifically, ‘some naughty pictures of that Mandy girl’, the head cheerleader.
Jimmy expresses some weak reservations, like noting that these are the kinds of pictures that ‘could land me in jail’, but even so, decides to go along with Earnest’s plan.
The mission objectives clearly don’t need to be specific (‘Get some pictures of Mandy’), but the photos the player has to sneak around and take are at cheerleading practice, in the shower room in the girls dorm, and Mandy in her bedroom getting dressed. Conveniently, the photos you have to take while in the mission are not only grainy black and white snapshots, but in the latter of them Mandy is almost entirely obscured, and so they are nowhere near as graphic as the photos that end up on posters around the school and even in the town centre as a result of your actions:
All this for $25, ‘nerd respect’, and Earnest’s own enjoyment. This is all murky enough, but in the mission that follows, ‘Discretion Assured’, Jimmy finds Mandy understandably inconsolable (“Now everyone thinks I’m a slut…Great, my parents will be so proud. I’ll probably get expelled”), and offers to help her by spray painting over all the posters. What ensues is a kind of mini-game that requires you to travel around campus and town ‘tagging’ the photos before the nerds can put up fresh ones. In the end, you’re rewarded with a kiss from Mandy (“Oh you are the sweetest boy ever!”), despite Jimmy’s actions being the entire reason for all of this in the first place, and her photo (with a lipstick kiss) joins the collection on Jimmy’s bedroom wall.
There’s always another side to be argued with the stories that Rockstar tell and the way they choose their representations, a kind of inside joke: of course, it’s just a reflection of American society and culture back at itself. And by requiring players to complete these objectives to advance the game’s story (which is, arguably, optional), Canis Canem Edit almost dares you to do things, and then forces you to live with the knowledge that you have. But what appears here to be a intended as satire is really unsuccessful, and isn’t actually intelligent at all, just sloppy. No one really faces any consequences except Mandy herself.
I try not to participate in reductive moral outrage, but I couldn’t help but get that buzzing, irritated feeling. Yes, this is a 2006 title, but this is 2016: surely we’re past this? I’m not advocating a rewrite of the past—let’s be clear, I played this game when I was in my early teens, and don’t particularly remember batting an eyelid about this mission or thinking it was so horrendous then (more fool me). But, is this not now a culture that makes revenge porn illegal in many places, and (I would hope) a society that is moving beyond victim-shaming for exactly this?
Even if the missions hadn’t been cut, changing a few lines of dialogue and NPC character behaviours would have done something to solve many of the most awful things about these missions; maybe just as a start, not having Mandy blame herself for having been ‘a bitch’, that she probably ‘deserves it’? Not having grown men NPCs looking at her poster saying “Good thing my wife didn’t see me looking at that”? (Or having young boys stand around the photos spouting lines like “I think I have mayonnaise on my pants”).
I don’t agree with those who advocate banning these games (those aware of Rockstar’s history with such campaigners can probably think of a few infamous examples), and every time a new article circulates that proposes a tenuous (or at least vastly over complicated and little-really understood) link between video games and violence, I tend to cast a cynical eye over them and move on. But what has always, and continues to this day to frustrate and disappoint me is the potential of these games. So much of Rockstar’s time, effort, and resources have gone into making games that are so critically acclaimed, enormously successful, and well-loved by players. I do not believe that this success is dependent upon an often misguided depiction of misogyny (and assorted other tired stereotypes) disguised as cultural critique, and it’s probable that Rockstar could offer exactly the same experience to its fans, across all of its franchises, and do so much more responsibly, taking the time and effort to adequately depict and represent other sections of non-male society, who clearly they think they are representing, but evidently they really, truly, are not.
So my question simply is: Is this good enough? Or really, should there be more to just remastering and rereleasing “classic” games (for a price), without reevaluating what they meant then, and could mean now?
*Screenshots taken from PS4 edition.